Game Review – Frostpunk

Frostpunk is a Civ-like townbuilder that puts you in the role of the captain of a ragtag group trying to rebuild human civilization in the arctic wilderness after a cataclysmic, apocalyptic event. It was developed by 11-Bit Studios, a developer/publisher from Warsaw, Poland, which is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world of indie games.

11-Bit is gearing up for a 3-hit supercombo on the indie scene with Frostpunk, followed by Moonlighter from Digital Sun and Children of Morta from Dead Mage, all excellent games set to be released this year. Before I get into the review, I thought I’d mention that 11-Bit is definitely a publisher to watch.

As for Frostpunk? It’s very good. If you like games like Civ or Age of Wonders, you’re already familiar with this type of game, but what Frostpunk really has mastered is the sense of tension vs. nature.

Grow your fledgling steampunk Charles Dickens village into something that can stand the elements

Where in most townbuilders, building your town up is typically a stress free activity, and all the conflict of the game springs forth from the decisions of rival communities. Not so in Frostpunk. In Frostpunk, the emphasis is on survival. Collecting the right resources at the right time, thinking ahead, and making good decisions lest you get yourself into an inescapable death spiral of crises of your own making.

The balance to achieve this survivalist tension is just right. You have 3 main resources: coal, wood and steel. Your throughput in collecting them is limited, and they’re all necessary to keep your situation from quickly devolving. Miscalculate and spend too much time collecting wood and steel to build up your town, you’ll be caught flatfooted when a blizzard comes through and your generator runs out of coal. Load up on too much coal and you’ll find your population quickly rioting as they succumb to death from lack of food and hospitals.

The key to achieving this tension is the masterfully created scenarios. These scenarios are something Civ never got quite right in my opinion, but here they’re extremely captivating. In a nutshell, the deal is that everything is always rapidly getting worse, so the capabilities of your town need to outpace the worsening environment. There are three scenarios, with a fourth on the way.

Scenario 1: You vs. the storm. In this scenario, almost every day the blizzard gets closer and the environment becomes colder and colder. When the storm finally hits, you have to have enough resources stowed away to survive for a week — not an easy feat in a game where you’re constantly trying to keep your head above water. Not only that, the storm week is 200 degrees below zero — celsius. It stresses your people, your food reserves, your hospitals and forces you to have your generator on full blast for the entire week, burning through coal at 4x the pace of a normal day.

Scenario 2: You with a limited crew as you lead a scientific expedition to maintain the plantlife of the world until such a time when it becomes possible to farm again. You never gain more workers and have to rely on technology, machinery and autonomous robots to grow your village. You’re tasked with another resource-heavy finale wherein you discover a nearby failing village — can you save them and the plants at the same time? The challenge here is using your human resources judiciously and efficiently in order to avoid any periods of resources going un-farmed.

Scenario 3: You lead a town that is constantly besieged by refugees who all bring problems to your society with them. Class warfare, illness, massive amounts of unusable children, things of that nature. You have more people than you know what to do with and limited resources. Can you keep them happy and hopeful? Can you avoid a mutiny or a mass desertion?

Throughout each scenario you’re faced with a number of scripted events and choices. One thing I really liked about the game is how compelling the choices felt. Not because they’re particularly consequential, or difficult moral quandaries, but because the right thing to do is very clear, and it’s more a matter of do you have the resources to do the right thing?. 50 sick refugees show up at your doorstep. Should you take them in? Clearly you should, but if your hospitals are overflowing, you’re out of food, and people are already starting to riot, should you really?.

The gameplay systems are very well conceived, also. Unlike Civ, which is extremely esoteric and mathy, Frostpunk delivers the exact same kind of fun that’s derived from strategic and tactical decision making, but in a much more stylish and modern fashion. For example, where Civ has government philosophy talent trees with large numbers of small, numeric bonuses, Frostpunk has a more condensed talent tree system where each bonus feels intuitive, creative and consequential. What to do with children? Turn them into workers to benefit from them right away, or allow them to be a burden for the early game, but open up the possibility to train them as apprentices for medics and researchers in the midgame?

Cut off their limbs and let them be a burden, or just euthanize them?

The overall gameplay systems are nicely streamlined compared to Civ. Gone are 50 different resources to keep track of. They took the four things that actually matter in Civ, a few currencies and happiness, got rid of everything else, and made the gameplay revolving around those things much deeper. You only have to keep track of coal, wood, steel, and your people’s morale, but doing so creates a much more engaging experience because it isolates the core of what makes a game like Civ fun and centers everything around that core gameplay.

The graphics look quite nice, the scenarios are compelling, the gameplay is solid. It’s also the perfect length — it’ll engross you for a solid weekend, but it’s not disrespectful of your time with nonsensical padding or overly long scenarios. It seems to understand that, as an adult, a weekend ‘staycation’ or a week/two weeks of casual playing is pretty much the sweet spot for game length.

My complaints? The name doesn’t quite fit the tone of the game and it crashes several times during a 20 hour playthrough. Other than that, nothing much.

Highly recommend.

Ryan is a writer from Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter here, and be sure to buy his new book, Gods of the American Wild.